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Machu Picchu is struggling under the weight of legend

Machu Picchu has become synonymous with travel to Peru, creating a double bind for the country’s tourism sector that’s hard to resolve

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Peru is set to double its visitor numbers, but with Machu Picchu already under strain due to its popularity, the country must carefully manage its tourism sector 

Think of Peru and the formidable ruins of Machu Picchu – vestiges of the once great Inca Empire – are sure to come to mind. Dating back to around 1450, the sprawling site is nestled high among the awe-inspiring slopes of the Andes. Such is the significance of the Peruvian icon that the structure and the country have become intertwined – Machu Picchu is a symbol of Peru, a matter of national pride and a site that beckons visitors from all over the globe.

Though its allure consistently wins Machu Picchu awards as the world’s best tourist attraction (most recently at the 2018 World Tourism Awards), the site has become something of a double-edged sword for Peru. For some time now, Machu Picchu has been suffering under the weight of its own popularity; the foot traffic from the thousands of visitors that stream through the archaeological park each day is doing irreparable damage. And while Machu Picchu brings in hoards of tourists, they often neglect to visit the many other impressive sights that Peru has to offer.

While Machu Picchu brings in hoards of tourists, they often neglect to visit the many other impressive sights that Peru has to offer

Today, tourism accounts for 9.8 percent of Peru’s GDP, bringing in more than $20bn a year. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in 2016 the government unveiled plans to double the number of tourists it receives to around seven million by 2021. Herein lies the predicament: if Machu Picchu cannot handle any more visitors than it already receives but remains the principal reason so many people travel to Peru, how can the government achieve its plans without compromising the very asset that drives its tourism in the first place?

Crystallising this dilemma is the construction of a highly controversial airport in the picturesque town of Chinchero – the gateway to the Sacred Valley – which began in May. Its intention is to improve the area’s inadequate transport infrastructure and increase its capacity to welcome visitors, but its very existence poses a significant threat to Peru’s star tourist attraction.

No small wonder
Tourist numbers started creeping up in 1983, when UNESCO declared the area, along with the nearby city of Cusco, a World Heritage Site. A further upsurge occurred in 2007, when Machu, Picchu was named one of the New7Wonders of the World. According to the Peru Telegraph, fewer than 80,000 tourists visited Machu Picchu in 1991. By 2018, this number superseded 1.5 million – a 20-fold increase.

Although the current tourism boom dates back to these two key events, Machu Picchu’s appeal stretches even further. “In reality, the creation of Machu Picchu as this iconic tourism destination really dates back to the 1920s,” explained Mark Rice, Assistant Professor of History at the City University of New York and author of Making Machu Picchu: The Politics of Tourism in Twentieth-Century Peru.
While Machu Picchu is often described as a lost city – and a prized remnant of an empire that, at its peak, was the greatest on Earth – Rice explains that this reputation is not actually accurate. “Machu Picchu was never a lost city. Locals knew it was there,” he told Business Destinations. Referring to Hiram Bingham, the explorer who ‘discovered’ (or rediscovered, as is the case) Machu Picchu in 1911, he added: “But one thing that Peruvian and Cusco tourism interests were able to do, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, was to reinvent someone like [Bingham] into this romantic, Indiana-Jones-type figure, which then was used to enhance the appeal of Machu Picchu.”

While Peru has a number of other Incan ruins that are of equal, if not greater, historical importance – Vilcabamba, for example, really was the last capital of the Incas – Machu Picchu had a number of practical benefits that enabled its popularity to escalate throughout the last century. The most significant factor was infrastructure: the ruins sit alongside a rail line, which, Rice explained “was built not in the interest of tourism, but originally to increase agricultural production in the valley around Machu Picchu”. Today, the line’s existence makes Machu Picchu the most accessible of the country’s ancient Incan cities.

The danger list
Given the undeniable economic benefits that Machu Picchu has brought to Peru, tourist operators, local stakeholders and the government have continued to promote the site in a bid to attract more tourists. “But,” Rice added, “this also threatens to put pressure on the same cultural and environmental attractiveness that [makes] tourism what it is in Cusco.”

Peru’s tourism sector in numbers

9.8%

of GDP

$20.9bn

Total contribution to GDP

80,000

Visitors to Machu Picchu in 1991

1.5m

Visitors to Machu Picchu in 2018

With numbers climbing rapidly, UNESCO began to fear for the historical treasure, and in 2016 threatened to place Machu Picchu on its World Heritage in Danger list. In response, local authorities implemented new regulations in July 2017 with the aim of reducing the erosion caused by foot traffic, keeping the park clean and preventing damage to the ruins. Today, visitors are only allowed into Machu Picchu during one of two time slots – between 6am and noon, or between noon and 5:30pm – and must be accompanied by an accredited guide, who has to follow pre-designated paths.

Access to certain areas, such as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Condor, has been restricted and more supervising guards have been introduced to keep an eye on tourists. What’s more, there is an official limit of 500 people a day for the famous Inca Trail, a two or four-day mountain hike that has become popular with those wanting to trace the path the Incas themselves took to visit Machu Picchu.

These regulations seemed to have appeased UNESCO, with the body withdrawing its threat. Certainly, the time slot system has been effective in managing the flow of visitors at any given period – however, the regulations aren’t as successful as they ought to be. For example, UNESCO initially recommended that the park limit its visitors to 2,500 a day, but since the new regulations were introduced, the actual number has rocketed to around 6,500.

Though it is a lot better organised now, the park is heaving at all times, compromising the experience for visitors and making it harder to manage their bad behaviour. Little is done to stop visitors prodding at the ruins as they please and, Business Destinations learned from local tour guides, the 500-a-day limit for the Inca Trail is far exceeded.

Controversial construction
At present, those wanting to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu must travel to Jorge Chávez International Airport, which is situated in the Peruvian capital. “The airport in Lima is completely saturated,” said Sarah Miginiac, General Manager for Latin America at G Adventures. “It is complicated to bring in new airlines; you only have one runway and the airport already runs 24 hours a day, non-stop.”

Machu Picchu is heaving at all times, compromising the experience for visitors and making it more difficult for their behaviour to be managed

From Lima, travellers must get a domestic flight to Cusco. The city’s airport is small and overstretched, with lengthy delays being the norm. Adjusting to the high altitude of this iconic city takes some time – the recommendation is three days, particularly if a hike is to be attempted – before visitors take a train or bus to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. For those who aren’t undertaking the hike through the mountains, there is another bus journey to complete before reaching the famous ruins. Given the lengths international tourists must go to if they wish to visit Machu Picchu, it is hardly surprising that Cusco’s tourism sector has been calling out for another airport since the 1970s.

Almost 50 years later, and work on Chinchero International Airport – which will shuttle some five million passengers per year – has finally begun, but its location within the Sacred Valley of the Inca Empire remains steeped in controversy. Historians and archaeologists have cried out in protest, fearing for the already-fragile area and the masses of Incan relics packed within it. In January, close to 20,000 individuals signed a petition calling on incumbent president Martin Vizcarra to block plans for the airport, saying it will cause “irreparable damage to the culture of Peru and humanity”.

Supporters of the project say it will create new jobs in the area and boost local economic activity. There are also domestic politics in play. “From the perspective of many of Cusco’s regional leaders, this airport is politically owed to Cusco because it’s been shelved and essentially delayed for so many years,” said Rice. “And now it’s time for the central government to fulfil that
long-overdue promise.”

While the airport has the potential to expand Cusco’s tourism offering, it could also bring numerous unforeseen consequences. “Part of Cusco’s appeal is that it’s an ecologically and environmentally stunning place, and putting a big airport in the centre of an area like Chinchero risks the same environmental beauty that makes it so appealing in the first place,” Rice said. Noise pollution could also dampen the experience for travellers.

According to Rice, the environmental reviews of the airport’s location have been critiqued for being incomplete, while the archaeological damage to the area has not been comprehensively investigated. There are also concerns regarding Cusco’s lakes, which will not be harmed by the airport itself, but would suffer as a result of the development around the airport that will surely follow.

Beyond the ruins
Despite being famed for one sight in particular, Peru has an abundance of attractions for visitors to delight in. “It’s the whole combination of the coast with the desert, the Andes, the ruins of the Incas, all the attractions in the jungle and Peru’s biodiversity,” added Miginiac. Of late, Peru has garnered a reputation as a destination for adventure, sports and a host of outdoor activities, thanks to its varied and enviable geography. People can surf the waves in Chicama in North-West Peru or sandboard atop South America’s largest sand dunes in Huacachina.

Despite UNESCO’s recommendation that Machu Picchu limit its visitors to 2,500 a day, the actual number is around 6,500

Those with hopes of catching a glimpse of the country’s astonishing array of wildlife should look no further than the Amazon rainforest. Tourists can go on jungle tours, keeping an eye out for monkeys, exotic birds and pink dolphins, or go fishing for piranha and wolffish in the Amazon River. For hikers, there are numerous climbs and mountains to pick from, including Vinicunca Mountain, a formation of exposed sedimentary mineral layers that gives the rock the nickname Rainbow Mountain. Then there are the scores of historically significant archaeological sites to explore, including Moray, Chan Chan and Kuélap.

Peru – and Lima in particular – has become a hub for gastronomic tourism, with two of the capital’s restaurants ranked among the top 10 in the world in 2018’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. In recent years, Peruvian cuisine has experienced an upswing around the globe: its ceviche (raw fish cured in citrus juice) is considered to be part of the country’s national heritage and is increasingly popular in the West. For any foodie visiting the country, it would be remiss not to try ceviche in its birthplace, Lima, along with the city’s famous cocktail, the pisco sour.

Peru has extraordinary attractions to offer intrepid travellers, making its tourism sector a highly enviable asset – and yet it continues to face issues. “There is still a lack of infrastructure in the country,” Miginiac told Business Destinations. Public transportation is a notable weakness, with much of it ailing, badly maintained and unable to meet demand. While the country scored fairly well in other areas of the World Economic Forum’s most recent Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, Peru ranked 109th out of 136 in terms of its ground and port infrastructure.

It’s a major problem that stands in the way of the government’s ambitious tourism goal. Miginiac explained: “There is no way Peru will have all the infrastructure ready to be able to receive double the number of tourists by 2021 – it’s not feasible.” She continued: “There isn’t a real plan behind it, to actually make it happen. That goal was set a few years ago, [but] we are now in 2019 and there is still no real movement in terms of the construction of a second runway in Lima.” There’s also the matter of safety and security, in which Peru ranked 108th in the World Economic Forum report. “We’ve had the rise of petty crime in the last two years, which sometimes makes international news – that hasn’t been helping either,” Miginiac added.

Shedding a stereotype
Miginiac feels the government needs to do a lot more, particularly in terms of endorsing attractions outside of Machu Picchu. “It is very difficult for us to promote other regions of the country on our own,” she said. Rice agreed: “For many years, Peru as a country never really had a coordinated tourism plan… The irony [is that this] left the opportunity for [Cusco] to essentially do it on [its] own, which explains why Peru has a highly regionalised tourism offering. If you think about Peru as a country, Cusco dominates its international tourist appeal.

“It’s the equivalent that if you talk about the UK, for example, and all international tourists wanted to do was go to Stonehenge. And they looked at London or Scotland as secondary – that’s how tourism in Peru is right now.” Rice added: “If I told someone in the US that I went to Peru for two weeks, but I didn’t see Machu Picchu, the reaction would be like: ‘Well then, why do you even go?’ If you think about it, it’s quite shocking – it’s a big country and it’s got lots of tourism resources.”

Peru’s tourism sector continues to struggle under the weight of Machu Picchu. The site draws in millions from around the globe and makes a sizeable contribution to the country’s GDP, but it’s a delicate offering that must be protected if it is to be enjoyed for centuries to come. By bowing to the economic temptations of overtourism, Peru risks losing the cornerstone of its current travel offering.

Authorities say they want to promote tourism to other attractions and parts of the country, but little has been done to market these areas and improve the necessary infrastructure. Until this part of its tourism strategy is prioritised, Peru will remain unable to escape the blessing and curse that is its Wonder of the World.

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